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The Life You Can Save

2. How Much Should We Give?

In conflict areas, World Vision uses MUAC tapes to quickly determine how far undernutrition has progressed in children.

The final section of Singer's book deals with the question of how much we should give. He begins in Chapter 8 by examining the moral tension between our obligation to care for and nurture our own children and our obligation to alleviate the sufferings of other parents' children. For Singer, this tension is not easily resolved. Although, he admonishes, saving the lives of others still takes precedence over the bestowing of luxuries on our own children.

Singer recognizes that the utilitarian standard that demands that each of us give until giving more will disadvantage us nearly to the same extent that it will benefit the life of the recipient is a hard sell to his fellow citizens. In Chapter 9, he addresses the argument that each of us does not need to give more than our fair share, even when our fellow citizens are avoiding doing their duty.

He does this with a modified version of the child drowning scenario. You see ten children drowning in a pond with nine other adults looking on. Singer argues that even though only four of those onlookers join you in saving a child, you have not fulfilled your responsibility simply by doing your 'fair share' of saving one child from drowning. Because of the minor inconvenience to you compared with the loss of a child's life, it seems reasonable to expect you to save as many children as you can. Using this same juxtaposition of the value of a child's life living and dying in poverty with the value of our western-style pleasures, Singer disposes of two other philosophical arguments for a less demanding ethic.

ln Chapter 10, he makes a serious attempt at working out what we should advocate publicly as an adequate amount for individuals to give to help alleviate poverty. Drawing on research that demonstrates that asking for donations above a certain monetary level actually turns people off giving altogether, Singer advocates a target of five per cent of annual income for the comfortably well off.

Even though I have no qualm with Singer's conclusion about the level of giving that we should advocate publicly, I diverge from Singer on his philosophical reasoning. In recognizing the disparity between the level of giving he publicly encourages and the much higher level demanded by his ethical reasoning, he draws a distinction between what he ought to do as an individual and what set of 'principles' or 'moral code' he should advocate publicly.

Like many others, I see this bifurcation between a private morality and a publicly pronounced morality as duplicitous and highly unsettling. Singer argues in defence of this moral dualism using the example of our general prohibition against torture [pp. 165f]. We have a rule prohibiting the use of torture, he argues, because such a rule produces the best overall outcome. However, he continues, if he is faced with the choice of torturing a terrorist or allowing the terrorist's bomb to detonate in New York, the right thing to do is for him to torture the terrorist.

I don't think this example saves his moral dualism as the rule that produces the best outcome is one that allows such exceptions in extraordinary and unlikely circumstances. Our moral rules and our laws already have built into them allowances for such mitigating circumstances that either diminish the amount of blame or absolve the person completely of moral culpability.

To maintain the trust of others that what we say in private is the same as what we advocate publicly and to avoid the charge of duplicity, I suggest a straightforward and simple modification to Singer's argument. Singer writes [p. 165]:

The reason lies in the difference between what I ought to do, as an individual, and what set of principles, or moral code, I should advocate and seek to have acted upon by most people in our society.

Instead of referring to a publicly advocated 'moral code', I suggest we refer to a 'policy', 'social norm' or 'inspirational goal'. What exact words we use will depend on the situation at hand; who we are addressing and the purpose and context of the communication. This way of framing the difference is in accord with the intention behind Singer's argument; that what we publicly advocate has to be 'attuned to our evolved human nature' [p. 166] to have the best social consequences.

Book cover: The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer

To help him refine the level of giving we should advocate publicly, Singer reviews briefly other proposals that have been put forward. These include the 10over100 scheme, Shenker's practice of matching charitable donations with discretionary spend and Fair Share International's 5.10.5.10 formula. Singer analyses each proposal, comparing the capacity of the super rich to contribute significantly more, without substantively affecting their lifestyle, with the capacity of those struggling to make ends meet. In the end, he revises an earlier sliding scale of giving of his that demands less from those earning less.

His revision to his earlier sliding scale is to make it progressive, in the same way our taxation scales are progressive, in order to remove the disincentive for people to earn more. His scales are encapsulated into an easy to understand table on page 179 and apply to the top 10 per cent of income earners in the United States. The super rich earning over $10.7 million annually, Singer recommends, should donate five per cent of the first $148,000, 10 per cent of the next $235,000, 15 per cent of the next $217,000, 20 per cent of the next $1.3 million, 25 per cent of the next $8.8 million and 33.33 per cent of the rest. For those comfortably well off earning $105,000 to $148,000 per annum, Singer suggests donating five per cent. All other income groups listed in the table fall in-between these suggested levels. For people earning less than the top 10 per cent—under $105,000 per annum—he encourages them to get as close to the five per cent target as their financial circumstances allow.

With the level of giving advocated here by Singer and applied equally to all of the richest nations, Singer calculates that this would yield $1.5 trillion in aid; eight times more than what is required to meet the UN's Millennium Development Goals and possibly enough to eradicate poverty for the world's poorest. He does not stop there. Singer goes on to articulate a seven-point action plan that each of us an individuals can implement. The plan is concise, fitting on a single page, and includes both donating personally and campaigning governments and organizations to do more. Singer ends his book with a note for those people needing to find the motivation to give more. Scientific research and experience shows, he says, people who give are more likely to lead happy and fulfilling lives.

Singer's book is a welcome rallying cry for the idea that we can eliminate world poverty. We have the resources and the ability. We just need to do it. This book is a testament to the power of philosophical thinking and ethical reasoning to impact practically on the way we live our lives and affect others. Being the practical ethicist for which he is well-renowned, Singer is donating all royalties from the sale of this book to Oxfam and GiveWell.org. The publishers are also donating a portion of the revenue from book sales to the Hamlin Fistula Relief and Aid Fund.

If you are persuaded by the ideas in The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, visit The Life You Can Save web site to find out more and take the first steps in helping reduce extreme poverty.

To find out about our list of preferred aid organizations, visit Our Ethical Practices.

Copyright © 2015

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